‘Deconstructing Stigma’ Exhibit at BTV Aims to Change Perceptions

What will it take to break the stigma of mental illness? A new educational exhibit at Burlington International Airport (BTV) asks that question of 24 people who’ve experienced the consequences of stigma first-hand.

“Deconstructing Stigma: Changing Attitudes about Mental Health” opened June 14. The interactive gallery on the airport’s second floor aims to shatter misconceptions about mental-health challenges. Vermont mental-health advocate Ashley McAvey arranged for the BTV exhibit after seeing it at Logan Airport a few years ago.

A Mission to End Stigma

McAvey lost her older brother, Ian Prout, to suicide in 2016. She’s been on a mission to end the shame of mental struggles ever since.

I want to say to anyone who is suffering that you are not alone, you are not frail, you are not crazy, you are not broken. You are a human who has needs that have not been met yet. And above everything else, there can be no shame at all in whatever is going on in your mind, body, and soul. You will never be a burden, and you must ask for help. It is then our obligation as a society to be there with open arms, without judgment, and with a promise that it will get better.

— Ashley McAvey, in “Deconstructing Stigma

Vermont Politicians Applaud Anti-Stigma Effort

U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders and Congressman Peter Welch both spoke at the opening reception, applauding the effort to eliminate stigma at a time Vermont is facing a mental-health crisis among youth. “There is no community in America, no family in America – I may say – that has not been impacted by mental illness,” said Sen. Sanders.

Vermont Senate Pro Tem Becca Balint talked about her own challenges with mental well-being. Stigma, she said, kept her from getting help sooner.

“When we as public officials come and name what’s going on — the shame and the stigma — it makes it easier for people to get the support that we need. I’m one of thousands of Vermonters who personally struggled from anxiety and depression…I know how important an installation like this is in normalizing my experience and the experience of thousands of Vermonters.”

~ Becca Balint, at the opening of “Deconstructing Stigma

Sen. Balint shared a video of her remarks on twitter, saying: “It’s important for me to share my own mental health struggles with Vermonters. You are not alone and you are not weak. I know I am a stronger leader because I have battled anxiety and depression.”

Sen. Balint Tweet

Real-Life Stories Challenge Misconceptions

Deconstructing Stigma includes the real-life stories of two dozen people – about half of them Vermonters – who have faced a mental health struggle. McAvey shares the story of her only sibling, whom she believed was suffering silently for years because of stigma. “Help for Ian would have meant confronting his alcohol use disorder, eating disorder, and undiagnosed depression—mental illnesses that he never asked for and that were not his fault any more than it would have been his fault if he had been afflicted with any other life-threatening diseases,” she says. “Yet the stigma around his very real illnesses likely made it exceedingly difficult for him to ask for help.”

Others tell of struggles with bipolar disorder, depression, substance use and trauma. Each volunteered their time to tell their story in an effort to help change perceptions. Vermont poet, writer and advocate Jodi Gerouard is among those featured in the gallery-like exhibit of large photographs. “There are faces up and down the windows, there are people here saying, ‘look at me, I have a an illness, and I’m still here and doing okay,’” Girourd told Channel 22 News.

“Each story is told through the eyes of the campaign’s participants as they boldly tear down the misconceptions of mental health,” the installment’s website says. “Not statistics or nameless faces, the volunteers in this project are everyday people—just like you.”

Find Resources and Learn More about Stigma

The American Psychiatric Association website page, “Stigma, Prejudice and Discrimination Against People with Mental Illnesses” defines stigma and how it makes it harder for people to get help.

9 Ways to Fight Mental Health Stigma” from the National Alliance for Mental Illness offers actionable examples for how to destigmatize language and thinking around mental health.

Break the Stigma is an organization dedicated to fighting negative attitudes and beliefs toward people who have a mental health condition.

Blog written by Brenda Patoine on behalf of VCN/Vermont Care Partners for COVID Support Vermont, a grant funded by FEMA and the Vermont Department of Mental Health

Need to Talk?

Call 2-1-1 (in Vermont) for assistance.

In Crisis? 

If you or someone you care for is experiencing thoughts of suicide or self-harm, you can: call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-825; text VT to 741741 to connect with a Crisis Counselor 24/7; connect with your local community mental health center for 24/7 support. 

Find Help

Find resources and tools for coping with stress at www.COVIDSupportVT.org.

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Find your local community mental health center by visiting Vermont Care Partners.

COVID Support VT is funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and Federal Emergency Management Agency, managed by Vermont’s Department of Mental Health, and administered by Vermont Care Partners, a statewide network of 16 non-profit community-based agencies providing mental health, substance use, and intellectual and developmental disability services and supports. 

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